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Science: Russian Manhattan Project

4 minute read

When the Russians exploded their first atomic bomb in 1949, many U.S. officials and some scientists expressed public astonishment at Russia’s rapid progress in atomic weaponry. The astonishment was based on the general belief that Russia started work on nuclear weapons only after World War II. This is not true, says a recently declassified report by the Rand Corp. of Santa Monica, an outfit which does super-secret long-range research for the Air Force. The Russians started atomic work at about the same time as the U.S., and they were at work during most of the war.

Rand’s two-man team, Russian Expert Melville J. Ruggles and Arnold Kramish, nuclear intelligence specialist, got most of their information from surprisingly nonsecret sources: the files of Russian scientific periodicals lying almost undisturbed in the Library of Congress.

Ruggles and Kramish found that as far back as the 1920s, competent Soviet physicists were contributing to the birth of nuclear physics. In 1938, when the critical news came from Germany that neutrons make uranium atoms fission (split in two) to yield enormous energy, Russian scientists reacted as excitedly as their colleagues elsewhere, working with impressive skill to establish the same key facts which would decide whether large amounts of nuclear energy could be got from uranium.

One important question was whether a splitting uranium atom gives off enough free neutrons to sustain a chain reaction.

U.S. scientists decided that between one and three neutrons are produced per fission. Russian scientists settled on the figure of between two and four neutrons.

Fissioning in the Subway. Another key question was whether uranium atoms ever fission spontaneously—an important factor in weighing the feasibility of practical bombmaking. Theorists said that spontaneous fission ought to take place, but excellent experimental men in the U.S. were unable for a considerable time to prove that it did. The first to prove it (in 1940) were two young Russians, Flerov and Petrzhak, who did their work (to protect their experiment from the intrusion of cosmic rays) in the depths of Moscow’s ornate subway.

Russian papers published in 1939 and 1940, say the Rand team, prove that Soviet nuclear physics was as advanced at the time as in any other country. Its apparatus was plentiful and excellent. The first cyclotron on the European continent was in operation at the Leningrad Radium Institute before 1940. Two other cyclotrons were in the works, one of which (if the war had not intervened) would have been three times more powerful than the 60-inch cyclotron at Berkeley, then the world’s biggest.

Two Uranium Committees. The super-secret U.S. atom bomb project was born in the fall of 1939, when President Roosevelt created the Advisory Committee on Uranium to decide whether an atomic bomb was a practical possibility. The Russians had the same idea independently, and in April 1940 the Soviet Academy of Sciences set up a comparable Committee for the Problem of Uranium.

In June 1941 when Germany attacked Russia, the Russian atomic program suffered a check. Nuclear research was halted, and Soviet physicists were put to work on immediate, pressing problems. It was a check for which the free world could be belatedly grateful.

But right after the Nazis were stopped at Stalingrad (Jan. 31, 1943) and the tide of battle turned, the Russians resumed atomic studies. They continued on a laboratory (but not an industrial) scale for the rest of the war. They may have heard about Enrico Fermi’s achievement in Chicago (Dec. 2, 1942) of the world’s first nuclear chain reaction. Espionage may have helped them. At any rate, they seem to have been convinced, long before the U.S. exploded its first atom bomb (July 16, 1945), that atomic weapons were well worth trying for.

“Far from starting … at scratch in 1945,” says the Rand report, “the Russians should not have been, by that time, too far behind the knowledge and skill that had been achieved in the United States . . . Instead of being surprised that the Russians got the atomic bomb as early as they did, we should perhaps have been surprised that it took them so long.”

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